New Zealand add heat to England encounter

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The Independent Online

The growing suspicion that tomorrow's second Test between a rampant team of All Blacks and the tarnished world champions of England might be just a little on the fiery side gained a significant degree of credence yesterday when Steve Hansen, the New Zealanders' assistant coach and forwards specialist, abandoned whatever diplomatic niceties were being pedalled before last weekend's match in Dunedin and opted instead for the language of aggression.

The growing suspicion that tomorrow's second Test between a rampant team of All Blacks and the tarnished world champions of England might be just a little on the fiery side gained a significant degree of credence yesterday when Steve Hansen, the New Zealanders' assistant coach and forwards specialist, abandoned whatever diplomatic niceties were being pedalled before last weekend's match in Dunedin and opted instead for the language of aggression.

As recently as two months ago, Hansen was the head coach of Wales ­ a position he frequently dignified with a silence bordering on the Trappist. Back on home soil in the Land of the Long White Cloud, he is much more forthcoming. This is what comes of swapping the parish-pump politics of the principality for rugby's equivalent of the high affairs of state. He is now working with a depth and quality of player way beyond anything available to him in Red Dragon country and positively oozes confidence.

"This whole campaign is about the All Blacks looking again at their basics, their set-pieces, and getting them sorted out," he said. "In last season's Tests, the forwards failed to produce good ball in the right situations at the right times, so we've gone back to the drawing board and dissected the whole thing. And yes, we've also examined the physicality of our approach. Rugby is a game in which intimidation counts for a great deal; you have to win the collisions, and successful teams do whatever they have to do in that area. If you allow yourselves to be intimidated, you're in strife."

Might that explain the overtly pugilistic approach taken by Keith Robinson, the pig-hunting backwoodsman from Waikato who has suddenly materialised in the engine-room of the All Blacks' scrum, at Carisbrook last weekend? Predictably, Hansen was in no mood to point an accusatory finger at his own man. Instead, he warned of more to come.

"I think a lot of the things that happened at Carisbrook occurred around the ball, rather than off it," he pronounced. "We won't be any less physical this weekend. I am not suggesting for one moment that we'll be looking for trouble, but we certainly won't take a backward step." As England are intent on drawing their own line in the sand, the prospects for a rough-house are even higher than usual in games between these two hugely ambitious rugby nations.

Of course, England would find it a whole lot easier to slap down this highly-motivated All Black pack if a certain Martin Osborne Johnson was still beetle-browing his way around the playing fields of the southern hemisphere. Hansen, who found himself on the wrong end of a ruthless performance from the great Leicester lock on more than one occasion during his stay in Wales, was quick to credit the World Cup-winning captain with his due.

"England have lost the best leader rugby union has seen in modern times," he said in a tone that brooked no argument. "Come the match this weekend, I'm sure this current team will stand up and show what they have; their pack delivered an improved performance in the second half, and those particular forwards are the ones starting this game. But you have to acknowledge that losing Johnson is a big factor for them."

Clive Woodward and his fellow England coaches, creatures of deeply-ingrained habit when it comes to Test preparation, broke with their time-honoured routine yesterday by calling a floodlit training session at Eden Park, the 45,000-capacity stadium where New Zealand teams are defeated almost as rarely as they lose at Carisbrook. It should have been a day off for the players, but leave has been cancelled until further notice as a result of the 36-3 humiliation in the deep south. The last few days of this endless season could be the most painful ones of all.

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